Reporter’s Notebook: Democratic gubernatorial race shaping up?

It looks like monied front-runner Stephen Smith might be getting some serious challengers for the Democratic primary for governor.

That’s good, because that primary needed some excitement. It also needed more traditional West Virginia Democrats, which it looks like it is getting some.

I broke the news of Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, throwing his hat in the ring two weeks ago. The Madison doctor is a moderate on many issues, is well-spoken and very well respected across the state. He solidly pro-union, helped lead the fight on half of teachers against the legislative education omnibus bills and has seen what happens when an industry dries up along with the tax revenue.

The problem that Stollings has, and what most new candidates will have at this point, is money and name recognition. Stollings doesn’t have a lot of name recognition and raising money could be a problem for him. Candidates who are lawyers have no issues getting checks cut. Doctors, I’m told, are the opposite, notoriously stingy when it comes to donating to candidates.

As for name recognition, that requires money to do it right if you want to advertise. Otherwise you’re getting in a car and going to every dinner, every county party meeting, every picnic, every parade, etc. Keep in mind, Stephen Smith started his campaign last November almost immediately after the 2018 election.

Another possible candidate floated by Hoppy Kercheval of West Virginia MetroNews is Ben Salango, a Kanawha County Commissioner. You might not know him yet, but he is certainly known in the Charleston area. He has only been a commissioner since 2017, appointed when Dave Hardy became the state Revenue Secretary.

His biggest accomplishment so far is the Shawnee Sports Complex near Dunbar. It’s an immense facility with six professional soccer fields with artificial turf and four professional-size baseball and softball fields. A recent 10-day youth soccer tournament brought in an estimated $24 million in economic impact. Salango led the charge to build the complex and the website for the complex makes sure you know that by showing videos of Salango.

Salango is young (in his mid 40s), a lawyer (meaning he can self-fund and likely get checks from all sorts of lawyers) and has a young wife who is also Kanawha County’s newest circuit court judge. He’s friends with Natalie Tennant and retired state National Guard Adj. Gen. Allen Tackett (who also chaired Tennant’s 2014 failed run for U.S. Senate). It sounds to me like this has the makings for possible ticket if Tennant is running for Secretary of State.

Of course, Salango is going to have a name recognition problem outside the Charleston bubble, but he can overcome that by getting out there and getting some ads up. Fundraising shouldn’t be an issue either. I also imagine he’ll have the blessing of U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin’s machine, if not publicly, then behind-the-scenes.

The problem I see for Salango is what I’ll call the Bill Cole problem. Cole, the former Republican Senate president from Mercer County, spent the first two years of his first four-year term recruiting Republicans to run for state Senate. In 2014, his plan worked, and they took the Senate after a Democrat switched parties. Cole has some policy successes in his first two years as Senate president, passing tort reform, Right-to-Work and repealing prevailing wage.

But he also was a victim of his own success. If he would have just ran for a second term to the Senate, he’d likely still be Senate president now. But instead, he was talked into running for governor. Cole was a successful businessman in his own right, but he couldn’t compare to the flamboyant and plain-spoken Jim Justice. Much like Kid Icarus and his wax wings, Cole flew too close to the sun and his wings melted.

Salango also is barely into his first term as a county commissioner. He has some successes under his belt, but will voters take notice compared to his fellow candidates in the primary? Ron Stollings can point to years of legislative accomplishments. Stephen Smith has spent the last decade advocating for children and for the poor with some bipartisan successes.

Salango will have to make his case, but he has plenty of time to start doing that.


Lastly, apologies to Jody Murphy, the former Pleasants County economic development official and former reporter for The Parkersburg News and Sentinel. Until I received an email laying out Murphy’s political platform, I honestly didn’t think he was still running. The last I saw (this was written before today’s deadline for quarterly campaign finance reports), he had a $251 deficit in his campaign account.

Murphy also has an uphill battle for name recognition and fundraising. Also, it appears he is fighting for the same demographic of voter — liberal/progressives — that Stephen Smith is. Smith has a substantial head start with wooing those voters. Smith also has magnitudes more donations and cash on hand than Murphy.

Murphy could be considered an underdog, but sometimes it’s the underdog that has the last laugh.

Steven Allen Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com


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